Why Repealing Blasphemy Laws is Not Enough


Erasmus, a blogger for the Economist, recently saw a documentary by a Danish human rights lawyer named Jacob Mchangama about the need to get rid of all blasphemy laws. He agrees with Mchangama, of course, as do I. But he also pointed out that merely repealing such laws is not enough:

I agree with Mr Mchangama that blasphemy laws, implicitly threatening to use the state’s coercive might to punish irreverent speech, are both undesirable in themselves, and an ineffective way to ensure social harmony. But I also think he weakens his own case by overstating it. It’s true that punishing blasphemy won’t secure social peace, but rescinding all blasphemy laws, and robustly defending everyone’s right to insult, sneer and abuse, won’t necessarily get you social peace either.

As a matter of sociological fact, rather than value-judgement, social peace depends on more than the presence or absence of laws. If passionate hatreds between classes or between racial, ethnic or religious groups fester in a society, then blasphemy laws won’t keep the peace. But nor will the rescinding of all blasphemy laws. For social harmony to exist, other preconditions have to be in place. A minimum number of people have to subscribe to the principle that living together peacefully and constructively (in a household, a village, a clan or any other sort of group) is a desirable end; and that in pursuit of that end, it may sometimes be a good idea to show a minimum of good manners or self-restraint. If no trace of such feeling exists, then no legal regime or non-regime on earth can maintain harmony, in any micro-community or mega-community.

In a paradoxical way, Mr Mchangama and his bitterest opponents (the advocates of blasphemy laws) have something in common. Both think that legal systems are all-important in determining social outcomes. Yes, law is important, but so are culture, internalised moral values (whether individual or collective) and many other intangibles.

Very true. In many places that have harsh blasphemy laws, it may actually be safer to be arrested by the government than left at home. In Indonesia and Pakistan, for instance, there have been recent cases where someone accused of blasphemy has been savagely attacked by a mob of Islamic fundamentalists before the government could arrest them. And even in cases where people have been exonerated and found to have been set up, they will likely never be safe again in their own countries.

Even without such laws, religious extremism will remain an enormous threat to all who stand up against it.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    Erasmus asserts:

    For social harmony to exist, other preconditions have to be in place. A minimum number of people have to subscribe to the principle that living together peacefully and constructively (in a household, a village, a clan or any other sort of group) is a desirable end; and that in pursuit of that end, it may sometimes be a good idea to show a minimum of good manners or self-restraint.

    As a free speech advocate, not just advocating for government protection but also recognizing the utility of large volumes of speech; I continue to argue how important honesty is for society to fully benefit from the broad exercise of speech. I think a culture that ostracizes those who lie will have a far better of approaching the utopia Erasmus advocates if possible.

    Our speech protections are great and helpful. But when powerful groups, like conservative Christians and plutocrats in a few industries, can control half the political power by relying almost solely on dishonest premises, we’ll rarely reach constructive dialog that addresses root causes rather than symptoms. And therefore rarely enjoy optimal or near-optimal enacted public policy.

  2. says

    I think there should be blasphemy laws!

    It should be compulsory to blaspheme (and they should give prizes for the most imaginative expressions.

  3. says

    An academic adviser once posed to me what she thought was a grand foil of a question: If people disapprove of something by their nature, why should we need laws against it? Wouldn’t everyone just go around not doing whatever that thing was, of their own accord?

    The answer does not prove that we naturally disapprove of anything, but it does point out something that should be obvious– the more people disapprove of something, for whatever reason, the more likely it is to be against the law. Whatever justification you may come up with for a law to exist, that doesn’t necessarily explain the reason it came into existence. The reason it came into existence, for better or worse, was public disapproval. Because however much people disapprove of a thing, they know full well that a) their disapproval is not unanimous, and b) even disapprovers often give into temptation and do the very thing they otherwise despise.

    Repealing a law against blasphemy is merely one step back from theocratic totalitarianism. It’s whatever color you get when adding a few drops of white paint to a pool of black, and it sure isn’t white.

  4. dingojack says

    “Very true. In many places that have harsh blasphemy laws, it may actually be safer to be arrested by the government than left at home. In Indonesia and Pakistan, for instance, there have been recent cases where someone accused of blasphemy has been savagely attacked by a mob of Islamic fundamentalists before the government could arrest them.”

    And cases where individuals have put their own life at risk to save people from rampaging mobs of extremists.

    Dingo

  5. steffp says

    @4 Gretchen
    In fact the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia are supported by a majority of the population, not all of them members of mobs. Not so in Bangladesh, where people have a longer secular tradition and are neither Wahhabi nor Salafist. The demonstration we watched were sectarian in character, Qur’an school boys pipelined to the capital, not a mass movement.

    I think that Bangladesh’s example shows that without the installment of a secular society, I’m afraid, even the magical disappearance of blasphemy laws wouldn’t have any effect. Civil society, as can be observed ad nauseam in Iraq and on another level in Egypt, presupposes more than just elected members of parliament.. Democracy is not about polls. It is – among others – about accepted levels of minimum respect , the possibility of rational discourse, and rule of law to enforce all both..
    The same evolution, under by far better auspices, took more than a century in the US…

  6. matty1 says

    And cases where individuals have put their own life at risk to save people from rampaging mobs of extremists.

    Have you got some links? I think such people should be known and celebrated as widely as possible so it would be great to have something to point people at.

  7. uzza says

    the more people with money disapprove of something, for whatever reason, the more likely it is to be against the law.

    Fixed that for you.

  8. dingojack says

    Gretchen –
    “An academic adviser once posed to me what she thought was a grand foil of a question: If people disapprove of something by their nature, why should we need laws against it? Wouldn’t everyone just go around not doing whatever that thing was, of their own accord?”

    Your academic didn’t happen to be a junior lecturer in typewriter maintenance by any chance?

    He/she/it assumes that humans are always rational and always operating on the conscious level. The law however, recognises that this is not always the case (hence ‘McNaughton Rules’ and ‘Voluntary Manslaughter’, as examples)..
    And I’m sure mere ‘disapproval’ isn’t the reason why laws were enacted against murder, genocide, rape and so on. There might have been broader sociological reasons above and beyond ‘disapproval’, don’t you think? *
    Dingo
    ——–
    * (No matter what one’s socio-economic status, uzza).

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